Review: Combustion by Martin J. Smith

Combustion by Martin J. Smith is a page-turning thriller with a sh0cking twist (Available September 27, 2016).

Detective Ron Starke is having a torrid time of it all. A body shows up at the bottom of the local pond—a midnight swim gone wrong, possibly. It’s true that alcohol mixed with unexpected cold temperatures can have a shocking effect on a person in the water, particularly if it is in a place they are not used to swimming. However, the heavy piece of computer machinery with a steel cable looped through the handle, around the victim’s neck, then back through the handle again and secured with a combination lock suggests an accident this, most certainly, is not. 

The victim is a man who has done very well for himself: a big house, a big wife with big hair and a big history, a big bank account, and—due to his abrasive and unforgiving personality—a big long list of people who may have provided the anchor to take him down his one way journey to the bottom of a cold, dark, slimy pond. 

A raging fire is never far from being a possibility in San Bernardino County, and if this does not engulf Starke in flames, then his irritation at being passed over for the job of Chief of Police may just do the job. Matters are made worse by the fact that the new Chief doesn’t like him and appears to undermine every effort Starke makes to move things along in the investigation. Unfortunately for Detective Starke, he has personal connections to the victim, which threaten his ability to stay business-like, detached, and, most importantly, off the list of possible suspects. 

Martin J. Smith has written an excellent thriller, which is brilliantly plotted and continuously turns up the heat, bit by bit, until you feel the need to open the window just to get a breath of fresh air.

How Dwyer died was still a mystery; the single bullet hole in his skull probably killed him, but Eckel still wanted to make sure he wasn’t breathing when he hit the water. The crime-scene guys had sifted pond mud since yesterday looking for the bullet. Just ahead, mounded piles of dirt surrounded the spot where his body was found, testifying to their diligence. But they’d come up empty.

Starke ducked under the fluttering yellow tape that secured the area between five of the oak trees, then lifted it so Kerrigan could follow-an unthinking habit drilled into him by his dad. They passed the massive granite boulder into which generations of Los Colmos teens had etched their initials. Somewhere on its backside were his own initials, right beside Shelby Dwyer’s. Starke noticed that even a few gang tags had begun to appear as the city’s demographics changed. Kerrigan squatted beside him at the edge of a restricted area about the size of a two-car garage. The pond had been bigger once, back when Starke swam naked here as a younger man, but quickly shrank as Paul Dwyer’s bull-dozers redirected the water from Golden Creek, the sun evaporated what was left, and the pond gave up its secret.

Mr. Smith perfectly captures the atmosphere of Southern California. The variety of characters—some with something to hide, others with agendas which flare up with little or no warning—are overlaid perfectly on top of the scenery and countryside he captures with great skill. He reveals just enough of each person’s history and their relationship to each other to keep you guessing which way this story is going to go. 

No modern thriller would be complete without the presence of the electronic age, and Smith takes advantage of the surreal and unreal relationships people can develop in the murky world of the anonymous side of the internet. It’s dark, sinister claws reach out and threaten to drag everyone in and wreck their lives with little chance of redemption. The real world is difficult enough to police, and Detective Starke finds himself reaching into the cyber-world for some answers—even as the looming fires threaten to engulf everyone who comes into contact with the inferno.

He released the talk button and listened. Ten seconds passed. Finally: “Jorge’s on his way, Cap. Christ, you’re saying somebody’s still up there?”

“Jorge can take my truck. I’ll have her there and ready to go by the time he gets here.”

He scooped the girl into his arms and carried her to his vehicle. He opened the passenger-side door and propped her into the front seat. She leaned forward, put her head on the dashboard, and vomited onto the floor of the cab.

The radio crackled again as he closed the door. “Wait, Cap. What about you?”

He turned and looked back up the hill. Everything was ablaze. The big house at the top was the only structure still standing, but it was fully involved. A thread of wispy black laced through the brown-gray wall of smoke that nearly obscured the house. The fire had found something oily. He lifted the radio again.

The people, the background, the story, and the intrigue all merge together into a tale which is worthy of the title Combustion. It’s too easy and too common for the writer to give away too much and lead the reader to the eventual—and no longer surprising—conclusion, but Martin J. Smith avoids that very skillfully, and you are kept in the absolute dark, apart from the glow of the fire, until the very end. When the truth is revealed, it is a total surprise—proving that Martin J. Smith is a master in the making.


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Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.

Read all Dirk Robertson’s posts for Criminal Element.


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    The previous year he told The Observer that he was glad he went to Gordonstoun.

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